Gotochi Character Festival in Sumida 2016

Here are some photos I took in May of last year at the annual Gotochi Character Festival, held near Oshiage station, under the shadow of the Sky Tree. Around ninety regional mascots congregated at the event.

Higapyon

The Higashin news mascot takes the stage.

Monkeykuu

Monkeykuu, a stylish mascot from Hida, Takayama, has an eye for the ladies. He canoodles with his fans with such frequency it makes me wonder whether the actor inside is very committed to character or just an opportunistic lech!

Kappa No Kotarou

Kappa no Kotarou is the mascot of Sumida-ku, where this event took place. He looked comfortable on his home turf, frolicking in the park. A very benign descendant of the murderous kappas of lore.

Zombear

Watch out for the terrifying Zombear!

Inarinko

The trendy Inarinko, of Toyokawa, Aichi, flirts with a guy while she’s away from her male counterpart, Inarin.

Shinjou-kun

This year’s “Mascot of the Year” winner, Shinjou-kun, looks grumpy (his noodle-bowl hat and hair had briefly fallen off).

Konyudoukun

Konyudoukun hails from Yokkaichi City, Mie.

Yume-chan

Yume is the mascot for Takata city.

Light

“Light”, one of Dainam Group’s gang of “Moories” characters, is a light sprite. Apparently he’s done something heinous because he’s been fingered by the cops.

Koroton

Coroton the spherical pig of Maebashi City, Gunma. It must be a challenge to move in that costume!

Osaki Ichibantaro

Osaki Ichibantaro, of Tokyo’s Osaki station, hugs an adoring fan.

Todorocky

This musclebound mascot, Todorocky of Todoroki city, is not someone to mess with.

Chichai Obasan

Chichai Obasan, one of the more talkative mascots, strikes a pose.

Norimakitintaro

Norimakitintaro always has sushi on his mind. Literally.

Theodor Von Lerch

Japan’s tallest mascot (at a towering 270cm) is a likeness of Theodor Van Lerch, an Austro-Hungarian army officer who introduced skiing to Japan.

Ayucoro-chan

Ayucoro-chan is dogged by fans, even when he’s relaxing in the park.

Kato No Jo

The helpful Jo, of Hyogo’s Kato City.

Yamada Ruma

A daruma with a human face!

Gunma-chan

The popular Gunma-chan, of Gunma prefecture, rocks the stage.

World Character Summit 2016 in Hanyu (Part 3)

Here is a final selection of pictures of obscure mascots from the recent World Character Summit in Hanyu, Saitama.

Muzumuzu-kun

Muzumuzu-kun, king of Imizu City. Bring back monastic rule and put this guy in charge!

Hinojagakun and Sainobuntakun

 On the right is the potato-headed perpetual 22-year-old mascot of Hinohara Village on the edge of Tokyo. On the left is Sainobuntakun, the rhinoceros mascot of a Saitama newspaper. Imagine their children!

Sasadangon

Sasadangon of Niigata (based on the local treat, sasadango) strikes a sexy pose. Phwoar!

Wataru

The Honshu-Shikoku Bridge mascot is called Wataru. Wataru is a normal Japanese guy’s name, a peculiar choice for a being that looks like a mattress.

 Ma-Kun and Ayumin

Higashimatsuyama’s twin mascots, Ma-kun and (hiding behind her brother) Ayumin.

Oripy

Sayama city’s cherubic Oripy.

 

Tomo

Tomo is the mascot for Tomoe Milk in Koga City, Ibaragi. I got a free sample of the milk and it was very yummy.

Happy Hanyu Hanyu

“Happy Hanyu Hanyu” is the mascot of Hanyu General Hospital. Who knows what diabolical genetics experiments are going on there, if Happy is any indication?

Black Bancho

Black Bancho is a super-cool squid from Itoigawa city.

Oke-Chan

Oke-Chan is a safflower in a kimono, and hails from Okegawa city in Saitama.(There is no shortage of mascots in Saitama.)

 

Mochi Usagi

Niigata’s Mochi Usagi is bunny with a rice cake for a head. Is it bad that I am suddenly hungry?

Skinny

This eerie and enigmatic figure is named Skinny, and that’s about all I know about him. The yuru-chara equivalent of Slenderman.

Papa Tako

Papa Tako, the octopus mascot of Akashi city in Hyogo. He would make a good partner in crime for Black Bancho.

Ninjaemon

Koka City in Shiga is famous for all things ninja. Hence the mascot, Ninjaemon. It’s hard to imagine this character stealthily creeping into your house at midnight, though.

Melon Kuma

One of the more memorable regional mascots is Melon Kuma, from Yubari City in Hokkaido. To represent a town best known for bears and melons, he’s quite simply a bear with a melon for a head. But instead of a predictably cute, Winnie the Pooh-style bear, the designers gave Melon Kuma all of a wild bear’s most savage and terrifying features. He looks like a chimera from a botched science experiment.

A standout at Yuru-chara gatherings, Melon Kuma runs around brutally attacking all the other hapless mascots.

Here he is, attacking the giant inflatable sumo, Pier Nishiki, the mascot of a party goods store.

Here, he attacks Yamaguchi prefecture’s Choruru, who manages to fend the monster off with a knife.

Although Melon Kuma is a nasty piece of work, you have to feel sorry for the performer inside the suit. Being the villain of the event means he spends all day being punched and kicked by children.

World Character Summit 2016 in Hanyu (Part 2)

Here’s another bumper crop of oddball mascots that I encountered at the World Mascot Summit in Hanyu, Saitama.

Igaman-chan

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First up, Hanyu City’s very own Igaman-chan, a mysterious fairy with a distinctive pink haircut. Igaman-chan is a local favourite and, along with Mujinamon (a brown woodland creature with a leaf on his head, who I didn’t spot), is one of the official mascots for the event.

Funadon

Hanyu City seems to have eight mascots, which seems a bit excessive. The runt of the litter is poor old Funadon the fish, pictured below. He doesn’t seem to have been blessed with any discernible personality or special party tricks, and looks like he desperately needs to be thrown back into the river.

 

2Uyakisoban and Momii

2Uyakisoban is about as suave and stylish as you be for a man with a bowl of fried  noodles for a head. His female companion, Momii, is smoking hot (literally – she’s an anthropomorphic flame).

Yoshiming

 

Yoshiming is a tiny strawberry from Yoshimi town in Saitama. As with Funadon, whoever’s inside the costume must be absolutely tiny. I spotted her being carted away by a man in a (presumably not official) costume resembling Nara’s Sento-kun. Hopefully she won’t end up as dessert.

Na-chan

 

Na-Chan, an alluring peanut from Yachimata City, is usually seen as part of a double act with her beau, Pi-Chan, but he was nowhere to be seen. I hope this doesn’t mean there’s trouble in paradise.

Tom

Although this event is called the “World Character Summit”, barely any of the yuru-chara present are not Japanese. In fact, half of them seem to be from Saitama!
Tom is one exception- he’s the mascot for the American Center of Japan.
If Na-Chan does need a new boyfriend, she could do worse than Tom. Although he’s actually a jelly bean, he at least looks a bit like a peanut. A jellybean was chosen because their variety of colours and flavours represents America’s diversity.

Misato No Mizumo

This impish fella knows how to strike a pose. It’s Misato No Mizumo, a water fairy from Misato Town in Aichi.

Kamuten

Kamuten is a Papa-Smurf lookalike from Shinjo City, Yamagata. For some reason, I feel more awkward approaching mascots for a photo if they look like people.

Hoshi No Aman

Aman’s distinctive plumage looks like a star, to represent the star festival in his hometown of Katano. I find it endearing that his face is frozen in a constant state of bewilderment.

Muuto-Kun

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Here’s a yuru-chara I wouldn’t want to mess with. This streetwise tough-guy is Muuto-kun, and he’s the mascot for Saitama aquarium. Don’t call him fish-face!

Sarupu

A monkey from Sarufutsu Village in Hokkaido, Saruppu apparently weighs the same as 90 scallops.

Kyoro-chan and Tororin

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On the left we have Kyoro-chan, the classic mascot for Morinaga’s Choco-Balls. On the right we have the Kasukabe Yakisoba mascot, Tororin (who looks much like Phil Oaky of the Human League). Together they make a meal fit for a broke university student.

Kumamon Joins a Wedding

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On Sunday I was lucky enough to witness a couple celebrating their wedding with various yuru-chara, including Kumamon. The mascot-crazed couple’s nuptials were among the festivities at the World Mascot Summit in Hanyu, Saitama. Kumamon looked eager to whisk the bride away himself, the scoundrel.

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A Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen Mascot

Piple-Kun is the mascot of Hawaii’s Aloha Gas company. He’s an anthropomorphic pineapple in a Hawaiian shirt, his star sign is Leo, and he likes eating spam.I ran into Piple-Kun at the Yuru-chara festival on Sunday. He appears to have been repurposed as a cheerleader for Pikotaro, singer of the PPAP song, complete with the leopard skin shirt and permed hair. He even got up on stage and sang Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen.

Piko-taro is cleverly milking his fifteen minutes of fame for all its worth. I recently popped into his new Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen cafe in Oshiage, at the foot of the Tokyo Sky Tree, for a PPAP parfait. Not bad, but overpriced. I hope they pay the staff well – listening to that song on repeat four hundred times a day would drive anyone to ram a pen into their own skull.

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World Character Summit 2016

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On Sunday I went to the World Character Summit in Hanyu City, Saitama. This is like a Glastonbury Festival for Japanese mascots, with over three hundred of them standing around in a muddy field to promote whatever city, company, or product they represent. The characters perform on stages, and meet and greet their fans. I got a ton of pictures of the various yuru-chara I met, and I’ll be posting them throughout the week.

Sanomaru

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Sanomaru, the official mascot of Sano City in Tochigi, is always a pleasure to spot. Winner of the Yuru-chara Grand Prix in 2013, Sanomaru is an adorable pup with a bowl of Sano ramen on its head. Whoever’s inside Sanomaru deserves credit for making him bounce around exuberantly and twitch his nose.

Kyuichiro

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Kyuichiro is a unique creation, named after the frequency of the radio station he’s the mascot for, Nippon Cultural Broadcasting. He has speakers for ears and his eyes and nose are in the shape of the frequency: 91.6.

Muuma

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Muuma, the dream horse, is the mascot of Hanno City, in Saitama. I like that funky green hairstyle.

Tsutiy

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Tsutiy is an earth sprite, and the mascot for a Yamanashi-based agricultural firm called Tsutibokori (cloud of dust). According to his business card (yes, earth sprites carry business cards), Tsutiy is 831 years old and his motto is, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

Utochan

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Hailing from Fukushima’s Yanaizu town (famed for a “naked festival” held there each winter), Utochan is a combination of the second and third signs of the Chinese zodiac, the ox and the tiger. Presumably his life is a constant fight against the cannibalistic urge to eat himself.

Kumamon

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And last but not least for today’s posting, Kumamon took to the stage for a few minutes of clowning and dancing. The famed black bear from Kumamoto wowed the crowd with a spirited performance. A middle-aged man beside me was moved to unironic tears.

Gotōchi-kyara

The most prominent and popular “yuruchara” in Japan are the regional mascots, or gotōchi-kyara (loyal characters). Prefectures, cities, and districts throughout the country each have their own cuddly characters.

Kumamon visits survivors of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake

Kumamon visits survivors of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake

Perhaps the most famous of these regional mascots is Kumamon, a large black bear from Kumamoto. Since his introduction in 2010 to promote the Kyushu Shinkansen, billions of dollars have been made from the sale of Kumamoto merchandise, from stickers to T-shirts, to dildos. (I’m not sure the last one exists, to be honest.)

The mascots tend to be based on local farm produce or wildlife, or puns on the names of the area they’re from. (For example, Kumamon is a bear because he’s from Kumamoto and “kuma” means bear in Japanese.) Combinations of local produce and animals result in truly bizarre and quirky creations, like Melon Kuma, the freakish melon-headed bear of Yubari, Hokkaido. Others are notable for the ineptitude of their design, like the weird humanoid, Okazaemon from Okazaki city in Aichi.

Okazaemon

Okazaemon

Melon Kuma attacks Kumamon

Melon Kuma attacks Kumamon

Almost as popular as Kumamon is Funassyi, a hyperactive pear from Funabashi, Chiba, who is famous for his exuberant gestures and stunts. Although Funassyi isn’t even strictly an official character, the Funabashi government having declined to adopt the character, his popularity has grown immensely in the last few years. This has made his furniture-store-owner creator, instead of the Funabashi government, incredibly rich. A natural rule-breaker, Funassyi’s unofficial status is a tribute to his anarchic spirit. The word “yurui” in yuru-chara mean loose, or laid-back, but Funyassi is anything but. The exuberant acrobat inside the costume deserves all the credit for making the character so appealing. He’s even been featured on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” show in America, and has appeared live on stage with Ozzy Osbourne.

Funassyi with Ozzy

Funassyi with Ozzy

 My doodle of Kumamon and Funyassi. Clearly I'm going to have my work cut out if I'm going to try to design such characters myself.


My doodle of Kumamon and Funyassi. Clearly I’m going to have my work cut out if I’m going to try to design such characters myself.

In March I noticed that a gotōchi-kyara expo was to be held in Oshiage, Tokyo, at the foot of the gargantuan Sky Tree building. Because I like nerding out over these characters and I hope to design one myself, I went along, excited at the opportunity to observe ninety diverse yuruchara in “the wild.” There was a veritable carnival of characters to be spotted. I arrived too late to see the highly in-demand Funyassi’s brief 10AM appearance, but otherwise I was not disappointed.

The day’s events included a stage show, in which a young woman “interviewed” the characters on an outdoor stage- I would question the wisdom of this choice, since most of them don’t actually talk.

Gunma-Chan

Gunma-Chan

Simultaneously, dozens of gotōchi-kyara were congregated in a nearby park, to meet and greet their fans. Wandering around and shaking hands with these beasts, one by one, was tremendous fun. In true Japanese fashion, many of them were giving out business cards.

This event was truly overwhelming, but apparently it was modest compared to the annual “Yuruchara Grand Prix”, which was held this November, far away in Ehime prefecture, Shikoku. At that event, every gotōchi-kyara you could think of was in attendance. Poor old Funyassi is the exception- due to his illegitimacy, he was left out. Votes opened in July for this year’s winner and flooded in by the thousands. The well-deserved victor was Shinjo-Kun, the mascot for Susaki city in Kôchi. Apparently, Shinjo-Kun is modelled on an extinct species of river otter last seen in the Shinjo river in Susaki, and he wears a bowl of local nabeyaki ramen on his head as a hat.

Shinjo-Kun, at the Sumida Gotōchi-kyara Festival in March.

Shinjo-Kun, at the Sumida Gotōchi-kyara Festival in March.

Claiming the mantle of Character of the Year is a great honour, for both the mascot’s creator and the town it represents. Could it ever be possible for my own creation to one day be standing at the winner’s podium? Extremely unlikely.

Seduced by Kawaii

After a dozen years of living in Japan, I see an old French bulldog being led down the street by a nubile young woman engrossed in her smartphone. The greying, sad-eyed dog’s errant tongue is flopping about as it staggers along, but despite but this and the indignity of wearing a pink waistcoat, it carries itself with a joyful absence of self-awareness.

I find myself smiling at it. This curious tic has been happening to me more and more often. A few years earlier I would have been far more intrigued by the girl, with her sprayed-on jeans and perfect hair, than her feeble, panting pooch, but something has softened inside me. Indeed, as I potter around Japan, scarcely a minute goes by without me being charmed by an adorable animal etched on a manhole cover, or a poster of a happy-faced anthropomorphic no-smoking sign.

I realize that I have been seduced by “kawaii”. It has taken over a decade, but I have finally succumbed to the power of cuteness. As a cynical and repressed Brit, this has not been an organic transition. Anime bunnies and Pokemon onesies might once have been targets of my withering disdain, but an onslaught of kawaii pets and cartoon faces coming at me from all angles has worn down my defences over the years.

The greatest symptom of this malady is my growing obsession with “yuru-chara”- the cuddly man-sized characters that can be found waddling around street-festivals and store openings. Yuru-chara are simple creations, with bright colours and minimalistic facial features. Although they exist purely to attach a friendly face to corporations, products, and prefectures, I am always delighted to see them. Whenever I stumble upon one of these benign beasts, I gleefully take photos to document my find, with the enthusiasm a birdwatcher might exhibit upon spotting a rare parrot perched on his washing line.

I myself am an aspiring illustrator and so, not content with merely stalking and photographing yuru-chara in public places, I am now developing an interest in designing yuru-chara of my very own. I would be deeply proud if a cartoon character of my creation were to be accepted as the official mascot of any town or company- what a great way to leave my mark on the world. The problem is, I specialise in drawing monochromatic, overly-detailed monsters and ugly, jaded loser humans, neither of which have the charm or simplicity of a Hello Kitty or a Pikachu. The grisly grotesqueries that ooze out of my pen would be more at home in an H.P. Lovecraft book than painted on a child’s pencil case. Restraining my dark excesses and trying to come up with a loveable, instantly-recognisable character will certainly be challenge. Nevertheless, I will endeavour to achieve my goal of creating an authentic yuruchara, and will be chronicling my attempts to do so, as well as my other yuruchara-related escapades, on this blog.

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